Monday, May 31, 2010

Drinking champagne from a lady's satin slipper

After A Brief History of the Smile and The Finger: A Handbook, lately published in New York by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, I am not inclined to tackle any more body parts. Already I receive quite enough inquiries from colleagues who are sure I will know the answer to arcane queries about hands and feet.

Most recently, a young English graduate student who is very interested in the history of dance described to me an incident in which a party of balletomanes somehow got hold of the shoe of a prima ballerina, chopped it into little pieces, stirred them into a broth, and drank it—a kind of homage. This put me in mind of that extravagant custom that seems to have flourished in the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth whereby raffish gents toasted some celebrated beauty with champagne drunk straight from her satin slipper. The excellent John Cooper had never heard of this practice, so I resolved to track it down for him.

The standard line appeared in a brief article signed by “The New Sub” and entitled “Where the Shoe Pinches,” in Judy: The London Serio-Comic Journal, July 21, 1906, p. 341:
In the age of gallantry, for which the present period is not remarkable, it was the custom to toast the mistress of one’s affections by drinking champage out of her white satin slipper; how many young men of the present day have a slipper amongst their valued collection of souvenirs? Not one of them; indeed, it is doubtful if they have souvenirs at all. Of course, it may have been a bit awkward for the lady, depriving her of her slipper, unless she provided herself with another pair, but those who indulge in poetical follies of this description never troubled their heads about practical matters. Nowadays we are too hopelessly dull and matter-of-fact for anything.
The New Sub seems to place this “age of gallantry” at some considerable distance from 1906, but a review by Ivor Brown of Charlot’s Revue at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London (“Bark and Bite,” The Saturday Review, September 27, 1924, p. 308) implies that drinking champagne from a lady’s slipper was not entirely un-topical, in other words an Offenbach-ish, Léhar-esque, Marlborough House baccaratty, Folies Bergère, Moulin Rouge, or at the very least Belle Epoque phenomenon, and, from the vantage point of the mid-1920s therefore, a sitting duck for the spiky wit of the brilliant young Noël Coward:
The chance thus to maul the ludicrous is supplied by the two chief librettists, Mr. Ronald Jeans and Mr. Noël Coward. These authors are usually more than flippant if less than philosophical…Mr. Coward, for instance, is at his liveliest in depicting a Parisian cabaret of 1890 with the polka as its high lavolt and a vintage English gentleman (Mr. Morris Harvey) drinking champagne from the slipper of La Flamme, a ravishing and freely proportioned charmer who sustains her ardour for the polka and English whiskerdom with much knowing application to the absinthe glass. This is nonsense de luxe. I need hardly say that Miss Maisie Gay coruscates as La Flamme, Mr. Harvey being an engaging moth to this prodigious candle.
More recent sources attribute the gesture to individuals such as H.R.H. Prince Henry of Prussia (a younger brother of the Kaiser, and rather less complicated with both arms in working order), who, when touring the United States in 1902, apparently expressed keen interest in visiting the demi-monde Everleigh Club at 2131 South Dearborn, Chicago, Ill., and was said to have drunk champagne from the slipper of one of the proprietors, the Misses Ada and Minna Lester, who lost it whilst dancing on a table. (Earlier the Lesters ran a modest but friendly bordello in Omaha, Nebr.)

However, identically the same incident was soon ascribed to H.I.H. the Grand Duke Boris of Russia, and instantly deplored by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, who protested in the strongest possible terms by registered letter to President and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt. The Grand Duke hotly denied ever having done such a thing on the grounds that he was a prince of the blood royal, and haughtily blamed gutter journalism. (See “That Naughty Boris,” The Camperdown Chronicle, Tuesday, November 18, 1902, p. 6, and “Boris the Badgered,” Tuesday, December 9, 1902, p. 6.) One senses the the thrum and sparkle of the Lesters’s overreaching public relations machinery—overreaching because before too long it got them raided by the police, and closed down.

Interestingly, the gesture eventually came to be associated with particular actresses such as Lillian Russell, also of Chicago—though rather satisfactorily the owner of the shoe now took the driver’s seat. According to “Beaucaire,” in her regular column “While Strolling Around Town” (Argus, Saturday, February 1, 1941, p. 14),

Back in Lillian Russell’s day, no actress possessed the real spirit of the theatre if she didn’t periodically dance on a supper table and drink champagne out of a slipper. But though I watched Elsa Stenning, the Australian actress [and soprano], who opens at His Majesty’s to-night in “The Vagabond King,” very closely at a party the other night, I didn’t notice her do either of these things. She seemed quite content to nibble nuts and ham sandwiches.
Though diminished, and transplanted to midtown Manhattan, the Lillian Russell tradition was still alive and kicking as recently as March 20, 1996, when Russell Baker remarked in the New York Times (p. 23):
After long absence from New York you notice things that full-time New Yorkers have quit seeing. Has it been widely observed, for instance, that the famously talky New York cabdriver is gone with the Trylon and Perisphere, the $1.50 second-balcony ticket for the best show on Broadway, Yankee Stadium crowds wearing fedoras and business suits, and old Delmonico’s [at Fifth Avenue and 44 Street], where men with diamond studs glittering on starched shirts may or may not have drunk champagne from Lillian Russell’s slipper?

Nowadays certain members of the international bondage and discipline set have taken up this curious scenario, noting with some excitement that the shoe-designer Christian Louboutin (top) “s’est associé à la marque de champagne Piper-Heidsieck pour remettre à la mode un «rituel» quelque peu fétichiste du monarque anglais Edouard VII dans les années 1900: boire le nectar pétillant dans les chaussons d’une danseuse juste après le ballet.”

However, by far the earliest and most intriguing clue I have yet located as to the origins of drinking champagne from a lady’s slipper is a throwaway remark tucked in the middle of a tedious and prudently unsigned review of Turquoisette, or, A Study in Blue, the first classical ballet ever conceived and produced in colonial Australia. Expensively choreographed by Rosalie Phillipini, and set to music by Léon Caron, the prolific composer of bad commemorative cantatas, Turquoisette was commissioned for Williamson and Musgrove’s Italian Grand Opera of Melbourne “as a plotless divertissement in one act.” The show augmented Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci and Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana during a brief but lively season at the Princess Theatre (Argus, Saturday, September 16, 1893, p. 10). According to the Argus’ critic:
The pas seul, pas de deux, pas de trois, and pas de quatre, which used to drive the exquisites of “Fops’ Alley” wild with excitement in the reign of William IV. [1765–1837], when champagne would be drunk out of a figurante’s white stain slipper, and a glove that had been worn by Fanny Eissler [the celebrated Austrian ballerina] was worth its weight in gold, have been superseded to a great extent by brilliant groupings, picuresque masses, a harmonious blending of the dominant note of colour, supple and simultaneous maneuvres of a hundred flexile figures in sumptuous costumes, rapid changes of position, producing the effect of a bed of gorgeous tulips swaying hither and thither as the wind stirs them, and brightening and darkening under alternate sunshine and shadow.
“Fops’ Alley,” incidentally, was the comparatively wide space between the edge of the orchestra pit and the first row of stalls in which during the entr’acte “exquisites,” “mashers,” and other dandies ogled young ladies in the boxes, and puffily drew to themselves as much public attention as possible. If the part about the reign of King William IV is true, then blame for the unsavory and stubbornly durable habit of quaffing perfectly good champagne from a grubby, smelly, lukewarm old shoe may safely be laid at the feet of Queen Victoria’s awful Hanoverian uncles, or at least their regimental mess-room pals.

Further chair

A major development in respect of the chair. Using his new laptop computer and a wireless internet connection, Uncle Tony writes from a caravan park at remote Charters Towers in Far Northern Queensland: “I definitely remember that chair. I cannot remember in which room it was, but it was definitely at Huntingtower Road. It may even have been at Portsea at some stage.”

The pretty house in Huntingtower Road, Armadale, was where our grandparents raised their family of four Trumble boys in suburban Melbourne between the wars. Portsea, by contrast, is at the very end of the Mornington Peninsula, hard by Point Nepean and the treacherous mouth of Port Phillip Bay. There in the 1920s Nan and Pa built a boxy weekender, set back from the main road along a sandy winding dead-end track that was rather ambitiously dubbed “Macgregor Avenue.” Macgregor Avenue ran roughly parallel with Campbell’s Road, which I believe was named after our mining great grandfather, Alexander Campbell of Argyll, sometime director of the Broken Hill Proprietary Block 14 Company, Ltd., and chairman of its useful subsidiary, the King Island Scheelite Co. Presumably he surveyed it. The old house at Portsea occupied a cheerful rise (essentially a sand dune). I vividly recall Nan’s garden, with its somewhat counterintuitive sloping lawn, vigorous hedges of oleander, the sumptuous but exceedingly thirsty rhododendrons, and above all the background noise of fragrant, crunchy, untamed ti-tree scrub that encroached upon the perimeter, and seemed to stretch all the way to the ferocious ocean beaches. There cannot have been any neighbors until comparatively recently, just dense, crouching ti-trees, and the never less than deafening summertime uproar of local birds and insects.

Uncle Colin and Uncle Alec may have more to add, but at this early stage I like to think of Pa sitting in my chair at Portsea, quietly pondering on behalf of his clients, the National Bank of Australasia, Ltd., and the Australian Bankers’ Association, the pertinent and crucial free trade provision of the Australian Constitution as it bore upon the trade in dried fruits—in other words crafting his brilliant legal argument in the famous case of Commonwealth of Australia v. The Bank of New South Wales, which at Whitehall in 1949 was decided on appeal in favor of the banks by their lordships of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, a stunning cold-war victory over the creeping, grasping talons of socialism.

Uncle Tony is on his way to Mareeba in the Atherton Tablelands, not too far west of Cairns, whence he will head west into the Northern Territory, to attend the annual race meeting at the approximately three million-acre Brunette Downs Station at Threeways in the Barkly Tablelands, 220 miles northeast of Tennant Creek. By my calculation this epic journey from southern Tasmania and back again will cover not less than 5,200 miles by road.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The filbert nail

Most authors run the risk of tackling a subtopic in far greater detail than is necessary, and need to be rescued from that hazardous path by sensible commissioning and copy editors. I am no different. My new book The Finger: A Handbook has just been published in New York by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and one of the sections of which I am proudest deals with the baffling Victorian taste for “filbert nails.” Eventually I cracked that nut, but not before the following, scarifying newspaper article joined a fairly large amount of comparable material on the cutting-room floor. This one was printed in the Hobart Mercury on Wednesday morning, September 30, 1874, and was syndicated a few weeks later in the expedient Brisbane Courier:

INDEX OF A GENTLEMAN.—Lord Byron proposed to recognize a patrician by the delicate conformation of his hands and the evidence of breeding in his well-kept filbert nails. Nothing can be more opposite in character than the nervous fingers of the stonemason and the soft hand and small, weak-looking nails of the linen-draper. And, as illustrating how intelligently observant is the Australian native race, a friend has communicated the following to me:—He was travelling, more than twenty years ago, in the Western District [of Victoria], and came upon an encampment of blacks. As he approached them a horseman rode off in an opposite direction. Asking who had left the camp, the darkies shook their heads, exclaiming “No know.” He was surprised that they didn’t know, as a blackfellow usually knows everyone within fifty miles. Said my informant, “Was he a gentleman?” “No, no,” they shouted emphatically, holding up their hands by way of exemplification. “No gentleman—too much dirt ’long a nail.” So that the observation of the unsophisticated child of nature and the deduction of the aristocratic peer and poet, did not differ much.

From this strange anecdote I never managed to find my way to the relevant spot in Byron (if indeed it exists). Nor could I imagine how the author conjured those strange images of an agitated colonial stonemason and a stunted linen-draper, or ever reach the conclusion that filbert nails were relaxed (or at least not “nervous”); firm or especially strong (not “soft”); large (not “small”), or by definition free of dirt—and that through some combination of all these qualities the filbert nail therefore denoted high birth. The issue of filberts was one of shape, after all, not mood, size, or particular cleanliness.

A separate point that was entirely lost on the author but nevertheless deserves to be noted is that by the mid-1850s, Western District Aborigines—maybe the allied Jardwadjali and Djab Wurrung peoples of the Wimmera—were politically astute and, I suspect, rather clever, in other words well able to steer a difficult course between the potentially conflicting claims of rival squatters, all of whom were armed to the teeth, exceedingly dangerous, and, as far as “the unsophisticated child of nature” was concerned, wholly without scruple.

The chair again

The chair in no way relates to my new book, The Finger: A Handbook—an ideal gift, incidentally, for typists, harpists, pianists, erotomaniacs, iPad users, and public speakers much given to extravagant gesture—other than that from time to time in the old sitting-room at Number 18 various sets of digits drummed merrily on its slender arms, whilst lifting a small glass of dry sherry before Sunday lunch. But new information has come to light. Cisco thinks Mum had the chair re-covered in about 1968, which makes some sense to Pancho because the old fabric certainly reflects Helen’s taste for natural texture, muted color, and the overriding qualities of discretion and restraint. I can say with absolute confidence that Mum disapproved of oversized tropical parrot or hibiscus prints in daring colorways of aubergine, lilac, lemon yellow, and turquoise. Rich satins, brocades, and heavy oriental silks were equally dubious. There was a period of bold experimentation in the 1970s when Mum chose to hang mind-altering Marimekko curtains in the playroom, their wide, undulating, horizontal chocolate-brown-and-white stripes offering to her youngest son a difficult aesthetic backdrop in the earliest stages of puberty, though in that period modern Scandinavian design evidently gained traction among stronger personalities even than hers. Meanwhile, Cisco also confirms that the chair probably came to us from Nan and Pa, and that the 194968 fabric (of which there is no surviving scrap or remnant) was much dowdier, maybe a brown chintz—if not actually brown, then almost inevitably the whole-of-life psychic mustardy brownness conveyed by so many economical, non-spry chintzes of the mid to late 1940s. The Truncles may have more to say about this.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The chair

A few months ago, before my new book, The Finger: A Handbook, was published in New York by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, I inherited from my mother’s estate a handsome armchair. I have always liked the chair, but for some reason Mum didn’t. She banished it to a spot in the attic where it sat neglected for many years, exposed to the full sub-nuclear impact of the southern summer sun.

When the chair arrived here in New Haven, Conn., I knew I needed to take radical steps to save it. This was merely a reflection of Mum’s own policy: Don’t replace any useful thing unless it cannot be repaired. Ironically, she made a lifetime’s habit of discarding certain irreplaceable things, which from time to time she assessed with an especially unsentimental, even coldly critical eye—above all teddy bears, and other stuffed toys (with some notable exceptions).

At first, to my colleague Patricia E. Kane, the senior furniture guru in the American Arts Department of the Yale University Art Gallery, I described the chair as “perhaps proto-modernist,” because what I remembered were the snappy lines and boxy shape; a certain elegance in the slightly unconventional, serpentine profile of the back and shoulder that is echoed in the outward flare of the arms.

But when my chair finally arrived in late February (by cargo ship, all the way across the Pacific, and by transcontinental truck from Seattle, Wash.), I realized it was not really proto-modernist at all, but instead conventionally, even supremely Edwardian in flavor—most definitely not Victorian. It is the kind of chair you might reasonably expect to find in the front parlor of a spacious bungalow in the garden suburbs, circa 1912. I wondered if the Pearsons picked it up in England at around that date, perhaps for The Orchard at Chorleywood in Surrey, where they sat out World War I.

At Pat’s suggestion, I asked the excellent objects conservator Susan Holbrook, of the firm of Holbrook & Hawes L.L.C., in Bethany, Conn., to take charge. I was glad when at length she agreed to do so. I delivered it to Susan about a month ago, and the day before yesterday I went to pick it up again, and lob it on to the re-upholsterer. According to her meticulous report, “This is a small side chair fully upholstered on back and arms. The finish is dirty and degraded, and there are many small scratches and scuffs, with a few small chunks missing from the top.”

In due course, Susan removed the old fabric and interior cotton coverings and padding, leaving in place the original springs, the straps, and burlap. The padding was retained for possible re-use, or at least for matching the shape and volumes. She cleaned off the dirt and grime. Using ethanol and acetone on cotton rags, she removed the old, degraded finish. She checked for stability the broken parts, the loose elements, and the wobbly joins, and where necessary repaired them with hot animal-hide glue—completely indestructible.
Susan added screws to secure the arms. Using clamps and more hot animal-hide glue, she reset from its slumped position the seat rail on one side—this put me in mind of Uncle Henry. She repaired with wood epoxy resin larger areas of old damage to strengthen the joins, and then carefully toned or tinted them to match. She treated the wood with Danish rubbing oil, a preparation that usually has a linseed or tung oil base, and allowed it fully to cure.

Susan then applied a finish of three coats of dependable shellac, meticulously toned exactly to match the original. Finally, she rubbed the surface with microcrystalline wax, and polished it up to a high and splendiferous sheen. Overlooking no detail, finally Susan cleaned the sprightly casters supporting the front two feet, and thoughtfully coated them with more microcrystalline wax. They have never rolled more smoothly, quietly, or appealingly.

From Bethany I took the chair to Benny Becker of Norton Upholstery over on the Boston Post Road in West Haven, Conn. He’s so great: supremely businesslike, indeed quite obviously an artist of great professionalism. At length we chose from his stock of clean and judiciously preserved remnants a long-wearing, eucalyptussy, dry, greyish blue-green mohair velvet, which Pat reckons is the most historically harmonious fabric, together with a playfully inventive “gimp,” that is, the elaborately woven tape that is used to conceal the borders. This gimp is slenderer and finer than the old gimp, certainly fancy, but not at all vulgar. Happily, Benny’s arrangements will be historically accurate, and also suit my personal needs—if I can express it in that pert way. I look forward to introducing the world to my finished armchair in about a month’s time, and to sitting in it for many years to come.

But here’s the interesting part. By this half-way point, Susan was fairly sure that my chair was made in Australia, possibly using the glorious, dense, deep-red Western Australian timber called Jarrah. With exquisite tact she broke it to me that the chair was provincial (her word)—in other words not at all well-made (mine). This view she prudently omitted from her report, though she needn’t have. From my point of view this is really intriguing. The chair exhibits certain wholly charming oddities, such as glaringly mismatched rear legs (mismatched, that is, with each other), a detail that I never noticed. The original maker probably banked on that: Why bother to match two perfectly serviceable rear legs if they’re apprimately the right length and shape; will hold the thing up, and are knocking around the workshop, ready to go? It’s not as if anyone will be on their hands and knees inspecting the back or bottom of the bloody thing. (This practical outlook or frame of mind is supremely Australian, though clearly he did not anticipate the careful scrutiny of Holbrook & Hawes.) As well, there is that unmistakable clumsiness of internal construction that is the universal trademark of the journeyman carpenter, or even the layer of railway sleepers turned ad hoc colonial furniture-maker. None of this matters to me. Having previously liked the chair, now I just love it.

Anyhow, here is what Susan found down the side, irretrievably lost, deep down between the seat and the arms:

a little coffee spoon belonging to the set Mum and Dad acquired after their sterling silver flatware was in 1961 nicked from Nan and Pa’s house in Huntingtower Road, where ironically it was temporarily stored for safe-keeping; an Australian ten cent piece (dated 1979, reverse view with lyrebird); and a small key manufactured in Hong Kong—not, I suspect, the key to anything like a safe-house, letter, or bank security deposit box, but more probably the missing portion of a padlock. There is a single notch on it, so perhaps this was a spare key to the first sleep-out at Metung. More telling, however, was the discovery of two scraps of old newspaper from inside the stuffing of the seat—which also contains plentiful wads of coconut fiber, scraps of eccentrically garish material evidently swept off the floor of the upholsterer’s workshop, and other intriguing manavalums, about which I shall go into greater detail when I retrieve the rest of the stuffing from Benny, and analyze it further.

Now that most historical Australian newspapers have been digitized, thanks to the generosity and foresight of the National Library of Australia in Canberra, it is now possible (using a judicious combination of sufficiently unusual keywords) to trace in a matter of seconds those shreds of newspaper to the exact page of the very issue from which they came adrift, in this instance page 15/16 of The Age of Wednesday, February 2, 1949.

Now the wooden parts of my chair are certainly much older than that, so the most reasonable conclusion to be reached is that it was thoroughly renovated; re-upholstered in Melbourne, and maybe also re-covered some weeks or months after February 2, 1949. Therefore I’d say it was almost certainly a carefully thought-out wedding present for Mum and Dad, who got married in June.

Who gave the present? Certainly it could have been Gran, but if so I think that was a case of thoughtfully fixing up a neglected but useful item of furniture, and tossing it in with Helen’s trousseau. However, at that stage the Borthwick family still lived in Geelong. I suppose The Age was sold and distributed in Geelong, but a small voice in my head wants to say that your self-respecting local upholsterer—and at that time Geelong tradesmen were never more self-respecting—was more likely to have old copies of the Geelong Advertiser floating around his upstairs workroom in, say, Little Malop Street, and not a stray sheet from the late Sir Geoffrey Syme’s mouthpiece of the left-leaning masses who lurked sullenly in the dens and meeting-houses of that sinister metropolis forty-five miles to the northeast.

No, a firm-ish Melbourne provenance puts the Trumbles, Nan and Pa, more firmly in the frame. I suspect Nan was much more a soft-furnishings sort of mother-in-law—the grandmother, in due course, of generous second helpings, exciting wind-up toys, and other relatively harmless contraband. And in that case, she might have inherited the chair from her own parents, and maybe parked it in a spare bedroom at Huntingtower Road. My recollection is that she favored cosier, shapelier armchairs. The uncles may know; I must remember to ask them.

At any rate Peter and Helen have left us no other clues as to where my beautiful old armchair came from, but what a very handsome couple they were!

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Finger

At first I thought it was a sinister warning from some local branch of the mafia, in connection with an unwitting violation on my part of the ancient Sicilian code of omertà. Then I read the covering note, and breathed a sigh of relief. Some excellent colleagues in New York have caught wind of The Finger: A Handbook, and were put in mind of this discarded portion of a sculpture that is in their care, and from which it was carefully removed some time ago by a skillful objects conservator—on the grounds that the fingertip was a crude repair to an old loss. I say “crude” because you can tell from the gluggy over-use of adhesive cement at the join that it wasn’t exactly the deftest job. Few such restorations ever are, except the ones you cannot detect without a microscope and/or x-radiograph machine. Of course, the ritual lopping of real digits is these days pretty much confined to the criminal Yakuza of Japan. I am told that certain animated cartoons in which characters are depicted à la Mickey Mouse and The Simpsons, i.e. with only four on each hand—in other words for graphic simplification—these require the painstaking editorial restoration of the “missing” digits, so as not to terrify Japanese children. True, it is difficult to see how a Japanese child could seriously conclude that Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, and Donald—to say nothing of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, or Maggie—were separately or indeed corporately exposed to the hideous ritual humiliation of some finger-lopping reprisal, but I suppose stranger preoccupations have proven stubbornly durable among East Asian cultures.

More Finger

I think Uncle John would have enjoyed The Finger: A Handbook, just as he got a big kick out of A Brief History of the Smile. During the 1970s, when he worked for Roy Barling as an antique dealer in Mount Street, Mayfair, Uncle John made occasional purchases of modest Greek and Roman antiquities from the Astarte Gallery in Grosvenor Square, long before they went exclusively on-line. He sold most of them before he died, but about fifteen years ago Uncle John gave me this rather fetching ring, ostensibly late Roman. The gesture was characteristically generous. He had polished it up to a burnished splendor, and it looked remarkably like gold—but since then it has tarnished into the unavoidable reality of brass, and why would any self-respecting Roman goldsmith create a signet ring out of brass? In this instance, the “late” in “late Roman,” is I suspect nearer to 1958 than A.D. 458, but fortunately I am very interested in fakes, so I wear it occasionally with some amusement, thinking of Uncle John busying himself at the kitchen table with a bottle of Brasso and an old duster. Naturally it causes some confusion, because the only finger I can wear it on is the ring, and alas there’s absolutely no significance there, and never has been—although I live in hope. Anyhow, ancient jewels, whether genuine or not, make a special claim upon our attention. Prized by a savage creditor from the fat finger of some failed Levantine merchant? Stolen from the sarcophagus of a Roman matron? Exchanged for a handsome slave—a body servant, perhaps—in the old market at Damascus? Won by an Egyptian courtesan in a crooked game of dice? Or lately hammered out (along with 150 others) by a Neapolitan racketeer with solid connections in Zurich, and a battered vespa? It doesn’t really matter to me personally, and fortunately my art museum is not in the dodgy business of Greek and Roman antiquities. And nor was Uncle John. His special province was medieval French, German, and Spanish furniture and objets d’art. For many years the Begum Aga Khan asked him to select a suitable Christmas present for her husband Those objects were destined for their house in Paris. I imagine most of them are still there, reflecting John Borthwick’s exquisitely monkish taste. I’m sorry I never asked him why on earth the Aga Khan observed or even acknowledged Christmas. The first Begum was actually an Englishwoman; I suppose that is the reason.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Finger Again

On special occasions, such as the recent publication of The Finger: A Handbook, or A Brief History of the Smile, I wear this ring, which was made for me some years ago by the distinguished Australian silversmith Marcus Foley. By coincidence, Marcus and his partner Dore Stockhausen live with their family at Nungurner, on the Gippsland Lakes, quite close to the spot where we spent our summer holidays growing up at Metung. But I first met Marcus in Adelaide. I want to say it was through my colleague Christopher Menz, who was then curator of decorative arts, or maybe it was through our mutual friend the jeweler Nele Schmidt-Teuteberg. I cannot now recall. Anyhow, to this ring attaches a story. In the Upper Pleisticine era, when in Melbourne I worked as a civilian aide to the Governor, Davis McCaughey, someone broke one of the shapely Minton cream jugs from the enormous Government House service, and Mr. Young the butler, formerly of the Coldstream Guards, tossed it in the rubbish. Now mark this: I did not break it, someone else did. But prudently I retrieved the pieces, and in due course had them invisibly mended. The only problem: there is no such thing as invisible mending. For years it sat in a cupboard, the mends gradually becoming more and more visible. Then I had the bright idea of commissioning Marcus to harvest the vice-regal badge on the shoulder and the pale blue stripe around the rim and turn them into a ring and matching cufflinks. The badge is slightly off-center because that is where the break ran. It is the perfect souvenir of those happy, happy days at Government House, Melbourne—that and my photograph of the late and much lamented Cocky McGrath. The badge itself consists of part of the personal cypher of Queen Victoria, surrounded by the garter and motto HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE, the whole surmounted by the crown of St. Edward, in other words a suitably pompous emblem for a young and ambitious colony of settlers that was for a while awash with gold.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Finger

The Finger: A Handbook is out, and there is a steady flow of reviews in print and on-line. It’s an odd business. On the one hand you can’t get too distracted by all that, and criticisms: Well, if you can’t take the heat get out of the kitchen. Sometimes I daydream about starting from scratch and writing it again—to mop up the leftovers. That’s the beauty of creating a series of novels, I suspect. You can always find a spot in the next one for something juicy but hard to accommodate, or in the one after that. Non-fiction is rather less flexible. Still, I think it’s a better book than A Brief History of the Smile, and Farrar, Straus and Giroux are a joy to work with. No editorial and production standards are higher than those of a great American publishing house. They even paid me the extraordinary compliment of using my own working title—almost unheard of. Titles and cover designs are the jealously-guarded prerogatives of the publisher, and rightly so: They know what they are doing.

By a strange coincidence over the weekend I cut the index finger of my left hand whilst demolishing a large cheese. I found myself wondering if this would be a promotional liability: issues of manual dexterity and all that, but at length I applied a band aid and moved on. I’ve also been paying a little more attention than usual to the state of my fingernails, which is on the whole good—but could be better.

Last week I went to be fingerprinted and photographed for my Green Card at the weird Homeland Security depot in East Hartford, Conn., under the stern but benevolent gaze of Secretary Napoletano, or rather her framed photograph. The nice man who operated the fingerprinting machine casually remarked that I seem to do a lot of typing. “How on earth can you tell?” I asked. “I can see it in your prints,” he answered. A blinding glimpse of the obvious, I suppose, but still I was mightily impressed. I didn’t like to ask what exactly about my fingerprints revealed this to him, or indeed what else about me he could divine from the impressions left by my fingers’ ends, but I did wonder.

Since our mother died last November I have been wearing this gold signet ring on the little finger of my left hand. We found it in her reticule, and it is mounted with an attractive, square-ish slightly mottled dark green bloodstone exquisitely carved with a rusticated intaglio tower, the heraldic device of her mother’s ancient Pearson clan. Motto: “RATHER DIE THAN DISLOYAL.” Extravagant, that. Anyhow, I think my great grandfather wore it, possibly even his father, our ferocious pioneering ancestor, the laird of Kilmany Park. Regardless, the ring fits perfectly, and just now it is a valuable reminder to me of two of the most ancient and interlocking purposes of rings in general—engines of memory, tokens of love.